4 Truths About Autism That May Help Open Museum Doors

What are people with autism really like?  All too often, the media portrays people with autism as emotionless beings with Spock-like logic and an utter lack of humor or imagination.  Fortunately for those of us who love people with autism, this is very, very rarely the case.  UNfortunately, however, our children are the victims of the images created for them by television, blogs, and other media sources.

Yes, people with autism have imaginations!
If you're worried that you'll be unable to engage or relate to kids, teens, or adults with autism in your museum setting, maybe a few truths will alleviate your concerns.

Truth #1.  People with autism do, in fact, have emotions.  Not only do they have emotions, but they may have very strong emotions.  People with autism feel love, anxiety, excitement, jealousy, and all the other range of emotions that other people feel.  So why the myth?  Often, people with autism either express their feelings differently or have a hard time naming their emotions.  So, for example, they might say "I feel sad" when they are actually anxious, or appear to be angry when they are actually excited (and loud). These are the kids who actually respond emotionally to fine art, live animals, and scientific discoveries.  Should these people spend time in museums?  Of course!

Truth #2: People with autism do, in fact, have imaginations.  In a very odd display of cognitive dissonance, the media portrays people with autism, on the one hand, as having no imaginations and then names people like Albert Einstein and Bill Gates as very likely being autistic.  Obviously, you can't have both.  And the reality is that most people with autism have imaginations -- and some have extraordinary imaginations, capable of seeing the world in brand new ways.  Should these people be exposed to museums?  You bet!

Truth #3: People with autism do, in fact, engage with and care about other human beings.  Most people with autism find it difficult to communicate using typical prosody (melodic speech), and they may have social communication differences that make them appear antisocial.  For example, they may not look you directly in the eye; they may want to talk only about their personal areas of interest; or they may even turn away during a conversation.  In a typically developing person, those actions are "signals," suggesting a lack of interest and caring.  In a person with autism, however, they are simply mannerisms -- and may have little or nothing to do with the person's real interest in or engagement with the person with whom they are interacting.  Should these people spend time in your galleries or programs?  Absolutely!

Truth #4: People with autism do, in fact, understand and build on what they learn.  The media seems to split people with autism into two categories: the brilliant, misunderstood genius/savant, and the severely challenged person who cannot speak or bear to listen to ordinary ambient sounds.  In fact, though, most people with autism fall somewhere in the middle - just like everyone else.  Most people with autism are of at least average intelligence, and many are truly fascinated by museum content.  Some go on to build careers based on their museum experiences with archaeology, paleontology, engineering, history, or art.  Should such folks be fully included in museums?  Without a doubt.

Knowing what you now know about autism, perhaps you'll be more comfortable with the idea of providing simple supports to access.  You might even decide to say "yes" to a participant who openly acknowledges his autism spectrum diagnosis.  In fact -- who knows? -- you may even discover that some of your best volunteers and employees have symptoms that are not unlike (or may even be) those associated with autism!

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